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"Vaganova: A Dance Journey from Petersburg to Leningrad"

By Vera Krasovskya

Book review by Leland Windreich

The eminent Russian ballet historian Vera Krasovskaya first published her biography of the eminent ballet pedagogue Agrippina Vaganova in 1989, just as the Soviet Union was dissolving.  Recently it got its first English translation and a hearty welcome from Western dance scholars.  As a biography, it is a curiosity: its revelation of the subject’s life outside of the theatre and the classroom is spotty at best.  Her story begins at her arrival at the ballet school of the Imperial Theatre in St. Petersburg at age 10.  In a few sentences we’re told that she was one of three girls born to a retired  non-commissioned officer in the Tsar’s army who worked at the Theatre as an usher.  Nary a word is wasted on her mother, and the siblings are never mentioned again in the text.

The reader is made aware of a life just above the poverty line.  We are also told that as a student Vaganova was a bit of a cut-up and that she loved attending and arranging parties.  A few chapters later we’re given a brief account of her relationship with Andrei Pomarantsev, a man perhaps twice her age and a retired colonel who served on the board of directors of a construction company.  Vaganova had a child by him, whom he adopted when he abandoned his own wife and family to live with the dancer.  Presumably they were happy in their relationship until 1917, when Pomarantsev shot himself in front of the Christmas tree in their well-appointed apartment.  So much for Vaganova-the-person.

In a way it’s a treat to be spared the warts and lurid details that seem essential elements in biographies of recent dancers, such as Margot Fonteyn, Rudolf Nureyev and Frederick Ashton, whose private lives have been mercilessly invaded for the reading public.  Krasovskaya sticks to business.  And if her book is not a penetrating personal history or psychological study, it is certainly a brilliant account of the education and activities of a dancer who lived in a particularly rich era for Russian ballet.

Vaganova had an odd, klutzy body and a large head, and she never developed a lovely line.  Photos in the text attest for this.  What she achieved in her classes was an impeccable ballet technique, one that eventually thrilled audiences for its classic purity and which became the driving force for her career as a pedagogue.  Her early studies were with the ageing Christian Johansson and with Lev Ivanov, who as a teacher was regarded with some scorn by his peers.  Oddly, she was diverted from classes with Enrico Cecchetti by an administrative decision.  One can only speculate how her future would have been shaped had she had the opportunity to relate to one of the great teachers of the century.

Nothing came easy for her.  Accepted into the corps de ballet at the Maryinsky Theatre, she waited years to get assignments of solo performances.  After graduation she competed with emerging ballerinas Anna Pavlova and Tamara Karsavina, whose charismatic performances overshadowed what the author describes as shabby techniques.  She was close to retirement when she was allowed to perform major roles—Odette/Odile in "Swan Lake" and "Giselle".   Both were disasters. The critics of the times concurred that Vaganova had no natural capability of  portraying a character.  In these ballets her grand technique was simply not enough.

The author’s account of Vaganova’s participation in the ballets of the era is worth the price of the book.  As a small child she danced in the young ensembles of the first production of  "The Sleeping Beauty", "The Nutcracker", and the 1895 revival of "Swan Lake".

Krasovskaya is generous in descriptions of many of the lesser known ballets of the late 19th century and of the significant works of the repertoire created in the post-revolutionary era.  In her lifetime (1879-1961) Vaganova experienced a metamorphosis of style and objective in the replacement of the traditional evening-long spectacles of Petipa and his colleagues through the emergence of the Fokine statements, the Lopukhov  experiments to the “choreodrama” and propagandistic ballets of the Soviet era.

Vaganova’s teaching career was launched in a humble way.  She taught first in small post-revolutionary schools for teachers who were dedicated to preserving the classical traditions.  Later she was asked to work with the younger dancers at the Imperial School.  And so remarkable were her teaching skills that she gained the respect of her peers, ultimately assuming the directorship of the program..  Marina Semionova was her first pupil to become a nationally acclaimed ballerina.  Following her were Ulanova, Dudinskaya, Shelest, Kolpokova, and Volkova.

For six years she served as Artistic Director of the Maryinsky (renamed the Kirov) Ballet, during which time she attempted to achieve a balance in the development of a modern repertoire with the preservation of the classics.  Under her supervision a few of the Petipa creations had revivals, invariably revised with her own viewpoints to insure acceptance by a new public.  But by far her greatest and most far-reaching achievement was the codification from a variety of national sources of the classic ballet technique, which was published in 1934 as "Fundamentals of the Classical Dance".  It is her teaching system which produced the great ballet talents in the era of the Soviet ballet. In more recent years it has become an authoritative method for ballet training all over the world.

Krasovskaya has a quaint way of writing.  Lynn Garafola, who wrote the foreword, refers to it as a “fictitious” approach.. What it amounts to is a participatory role in retelling episodes in her subject's life.  She tells what Vaganova is feeling, saying, thinking as if she had been in the room with her at the time.  She uses the same technique in her biography of Nijinsky.  I found it jarring at times.  After a chapter or two in which she makes references to such sources as “a letter from Petipa” and Vaganova’s “autobiographical notes” (neither of which are documented in the text) I began to question her credibility.  There is neither a bibliography nor bibliographic notes.  And worst of all, the book doesn’t have an index.  Presumably she saw no need for one.  But neither did the University of Florida Press. This is a shocking situation for a scholarly publisher. 

Vaganova: a Dance Journey from Petersburg to Leningrad by Vera Krasovskaya. Translated by Vera M. Siegel. Foreword by Lynn Garafola. University Press of Florida, 2005. 266 pp. illus. $34.95. ISBN: 0-08130-2831-0.

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